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Blood Diamond (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 08 December 2006
“God left this place a long time ago,” Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) says of Sierra Leone, the African country that was torn by strife in 1999, mostly because of the diamonds that stud its red soil. Danny is a mercenary—he prefers “soldier of fortune”—who free-lances as a diamond smuggler, mostly for the De Kaap diamond company. Diamonds can’t be exported from Sierra Leone—the movie doesn’t explain why, but it’s probably because they’d be too easily identified as “conflict diamonds”—but they can from neighboring Liberia. Danny is caught when he tries to smuggle diamonds across the border under the hides of goats he’s herding, while claiming to work for the National Geographic. He’s imprisoned, where he overhears something very interesting.

Earlier, we met Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a Sierra Leone fisherman who’s proud of his 12-year-old son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers). Solomon is happily married to Jassie (Benu Mabhena), and they have two other children as well. But one terrifying afternoon, rebels of the Revolutionary United Front storm into Solomon’s town, indiscriminatingly shooting men, women, and children. Led by the brutal Captain Poison (David Harewood), the rebels chop the arms off some, imprison others, including Solomon. Dia is also taken captive—and we already see what his fate is likely to be: the rebels include boys Dia’s age, armed with machine guns—and they’re the killers.

Solomon is sent to Kono, a diamond-rich area, and under Poison’s direction, joins the band of overworked slave laborers who dig through the red clay for diamonds. If someone tries to hold one out, Poison retrieves the gem then shoots the man dead. But when Solomon finds an especially fine, pink diamond the size of a hen’s egg, he tries to hide it from Poison. But the Army overruns the camp, battering Poison so hard he loses an eye, and takes Solomon prisoner.

When Poison is later brought through the cell area, he demands the diamond from Solomon—and this exchange is overheard by Danny. The two are released; Danny wants Solomon to lead him to the diamond, knowing it will make him rich enough to finally leave Africa, Solomon wants only to be reunited with his family. Just as Danny’s on the point of convincing Solomon that the gem will allow him to do this, the R.U.F. invades Freetown, Sierra Leone’s largest city, forcing them to flee in the movie’s most dynamic and exciting scene.
Later, they join forces with American journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) who is trying to prove that European diamond merchants, including Van Kaap and his representative Simmons (Michael Sheen), are well aware that their trade in diamonds finances brutality, terror and murder in Africa, giving stones from the region the name “conflict diamonds”—or “blood diamonds.”

Once the story is away from Sierra Leone, it becomes a chase interrupted occasionally by encounters with different factions. At first, Maddy is repulsed by Danny’s greed and cynicism. He initially claims to be from Rhodesia, not South Africa, but she gradually learns he was orphaned by Africa’s near-constant warfare, and was a soldier for a while himself. He’s a classic—too classic—figure of adventure movies, the jaded cynic who rediscovers his inner idealist. There’s a trace of a love interest between Danny and Maddy, but the movie is too busy going in other directions for this to have much impact.

One of the things it’s trying to do is to educate American moviegoers about the source of the diamonds that advertising here keeps insisting are vital to our joy and comfort. Occasionally, a dignified official, seen addressing admiring groups, explains the details in a bald-faced manner, pointing out the majority of diamonds are not blood diamonds, but that since the diamond industry nets billions every year, even a small percentage represents millions going into the pockets of ruthless dictators, phony rebels and other criminal types. There’s only brief mention that diamonds are actually not uncommon and have no huge intrinsic value; most diamonds are deliberately withheld from the market simply to maintain the high prices.

Director Edward Zwick (“The Last Samurai”) is very good at action scenes, and capturing the sweep and feel of the African terrain. Some action sequences, as in a raid on the slave-labor diamond camp near the end and the city battle at the beginning, are outstanding; they’re mostly coherent, even though edited in that irritating, MTV-inspired a-hundred-cuts-a-minute style. The first glimpse we get of a refugee camp in Guinea of a MILLION people—is astonishing and depressing. And his cast is excellent; DiCaprio’s character may be too familiar, but his performance is exceptional—he’s completely convincing as an Afrikaner, from accent to the way he moves. The script by Charles Leavitt depicts Solomon Vandy as nearly a saint, whose sole desire is to rescue his son and reunite with the rest of his family. Though the character is depicted in such a limited way, Hounsou rises above this; he’s never as gripping and magnetic as he has been in other films, but he’s also fully committed to the role.

The most interesting character is Maddy Bowen. She’s as driven as the other two, but her goals are larger and more humanistic—she wants to tell the truth about Africa. Connelly is bright, vivacious and colorful, essentially a more realistic Lois Lane; she says her brothers told her she wants to be in a constant state of crisis, and we believe it. The script is also more forgiving to her character; she’s less of a stereotype than the other two.

This is also true of Arnold Vosloo (the Mummy), Colonel Coetzee of South Africa, who lives on a vast estate financed by diamond smuggling. He’s a longtime friend and onetime boss of Danny, and like him, is all too aware of TIA: “This Is Africa,” the slogan that explains all too much. Vosloo makes the Colonel both frightening and intelligent; we can even see traces of the idealist that he no doubt once was.

David Harewood is excellent as the vengeful, cruel Captain Poison, but the role is as limited as Hounsou’s. Where Solomon is almost entirely Good, Poison—as the name baldly states—is almost entirely bad, a villain with so few shadings he might as well have a mustache to twirl.

This is the overall weakness of the script. Rather like “Apocalypto,” “Blood Diamond” is a superbly-made film on an interesting subject, but weakened by an almost cornball plot and obvious characterizations. After about the halfway mark, the movie essentially turns into a replay of “The Defiant Ones,” with a white and black fugitive dependent upon one another despite their antagonism.

The idea was to boil down the conflict in Africa to the base issues: Danny wants the diamond, Solomon wants his son—to him, his son is the jewel. But this attempt at symbolism/allegory tends to overburden the film; it does manage to depict Danny’s reformation over the course of the story with some degree of conviction, but it also requires Solomon to be so noble it’s unrealistic. The Colonel is a realistic villain; Poison is so thoroughly bad he’s like a character from a 1930s B western, only black. Harewood is excellent—he embodies brutal, savvy threat perfectly—but he’s really not believable.

The movie is too long, and comes somewhat unraveled during the protracted ending. Solomon was horrified to find that Dia has been turned into a murderous child soldier, but has to face down his son—who’s holding a gun on him. This scene is well played, tense and satisfying. But it’s followed by a lengthy, undramatic sequence of Danny trying to lead his little band while suffering from a wound. And even when this scene ends, the movie continues on, ending with a whisper rather than a shout.

Eduardo Sierra’s cinematography is handsome, sometimes beautiful, and the African landscapes are rugged. There’s realistically little use of the animal life of Africa—our heroes pass a chimpanzee at one point, and at another, see elephants in the distance. This is real Africa, not movie Africa, and it’s rarely been presented so authentically in a Hollywood movie.

The situation in Sierra Leone has improved since 1999, but there are still child soldiers, kids with machine guns brainwashed into believing the doctrine of whatever group has them captive. There still are conflict diamonds, blood diamonds, and those who wish to buy diamonds should determine where the money they pay for a glittering stone actually goes.

“Blood Diamond” is a good adventure thriller, but it’s weakened by overlength, stereotyped characters and a too-familiar story. But the acting is so good across the board that it may well land a few of his cast on Oscar nomination lists.

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